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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

Top 10 neglected Vatican stories of 2007


Every society has its shorthand ways of signaling what it considers important. At the level of pop culture, Americans know something registers when David Letterman or Jon Stewart pokes fun at it; more seriously, however, we grasp that something matters if it lands on the front page of The New York Times.

By that standard, one can only conclude that for the United States in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI was no big deal.

As incredible as it seems for a figure regarded as a major global newsmaker, the pope appeared on the front page of the Times only twice this year (discounting any mention after mid-December, when this article was written): on Jan. 8, in a piece about the resignation of his nominee as archbishop of Warsaw, Poland, amid charges of collaboration with the communist-era secret police; and a May 7 look ahead to his trip to Brazil, focusing on the continuing strength of liberation theology in Latin America.

Otherwise, the major papal events of 2007 all finished well inside. (Benedict was, however, the subject of a lengthy profile in the Times magazine on April 8.)

This year was basically Benedict’s third as pope. By comparison, in the third year of John Paul II’s papacy, he finished on A1 of the Times on 25 occasions, roughly twice a month. Granted, John Paul was shot in 1981, and 13 of those front-page stories were related to the assassination attempt. Nonetheless, 12 concerned other matters -- John Paul’s comments on nuclear disarmament, his interventions in Poland, his encyclical on work (Laborem Exercens), and four straight days about his trip to the Philippines.

At a comparable stage of his papacy, in other words, John Paul was roughly six times the newsmaker that Benedict is today. The contrast seems to capture an essential difference between the two popes. John Paul was interested in wielding the social capital of Catholicism to change the history of his day; Benedict is more an “insider’s pope,” looking to solidify the spiritual foundations of Catholicism to weather what he considers the long-term storm of secularism and a “dictatorship of relativism.” Such an approach is not well-suited to capturing headlines.

Traditionally in mid-December, I compile a list of the year’s “Top 10 neglected Vatican stories.” In 2007, however, such an exercise feels a bit silly, given that almost every Vatican story was covered with benign neglect. Instead, I’ll offer capsule summaries of the year’s Top 10 stories, briefly suggesting dimensions that perhaps didn’t get the attention they deserve.

-- Photos by CNS/Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI waves a censer during a Mass outside the Mariazell basilica in Austria Sept. 8.

10) Benedict in Austria: When the pope visits a country that was once the capital of Christendom, which still claims a Catholic population of some 5 million in a small geographic area, and the biggest crowd he draws is roughly 30,000, that alone says something. The Sept. 7-9 Austria trip offered a snapshot of Catholicism as what Benedict calls a “creative minority” in today’s highly secularized Western European milieu.

9) The pope is coming: Benedict’s April 15-20, 2008, trip to the United States was announced in November. Two bits of drama to watch: First, how will he address the sexual abuse crisis, and will he meet with victims? (No pope has yet done so.) Second, how will organizers prevent political exploitation of the trip in view of looming elections? That could be tricky if, as in 2004, one presidential candidate is pro-life and the other pro-choice.

8) Scandal in Poland: Polish Catholicism was rocked by charges that several important clergy, including Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus, Benedict’s pick to succeed Cardinal Jozef Glemp in Warsaw, had collaborated with the communist secret police. Among other things, the scandal reinforced questions about decision-making in the church. Lay Catholic researchers in Poland had unearthed files concerning Wielgus and other clergy years ago, but apparently were not consulted in making appointments.

7) New cardinals: By appointing new cardinals, popes influence the choice of their own successor. The consensus on Benedict’s Oct. 24 consistory, in which he created 23 cardinals, including 18 eligible to vote (among them, two Americans), is that it offered no slam-dunk new papabile, or papal candidate, nor did Benedict appear to stack the deck politically. It did, however, reinforce European and North American dominance, as two-thirds of the cardinals are from the Global North, while two-thirds of the Catholic population is in the Global South.

6) A Catholic shade of green: Benedict sharpened his environmental message in 2007, calling in September for greater ecological responsibility “before it’s too late,” and OK’ing the installation of solar panels atop his audience hall and planting trees in a Hungarian forest to offset the Vatican’s carbon output. Yet Benedict isn’t quite ready to join Earth First; for him, the environmental movement is more about a broad recovery of natural law, meaning the idea that creation itself carries moral laws written by the Creator.

5) CELAM: On May 14 in Brazil, Benedict presided over the opening of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM), rapping both Marxism and capitalism as failed attempts to construct society without God. Over the next month, the Latin American bishops hashed out a pastoral strategy for the continent. One aspect they looked at: massive Catholic losses to Pentecostals and evangelicals. The bishops endorsed both a moderate form of liberation theology and a return to old-fashioned evangelization in what they called a “great continental mission.” The outcome suggests the ideological polarization of the Latin American past may be fading.

4) A pope of hope: Despite his erstwhile reputation as an Augustinian pessimist, Benedict XVI struck two major blows for hope in 2007. In April, the International Theological Commission, acting on his recommendation, suggested that limbo (a destination for unbaptized babies in the afterlife) could be set aside in favor of hope for their salvation. In December, Benedict issued his encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope”), offering a positive spin on eschatology. The Last Judgment, for example, is not a threat of damnation, but a promise that justice will eventually prevail in a world in which evil too often goes unchecked.

Fr. Edward Yew distributes Communion during a Latin Mass at St. Therese Church in Collinsville, Okla., in September.

3) Redefining dialogue with Islam: In October, 138 Muslim scholars, jurists and clerics, representing all major Islamic traditions, wrote to Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders, suggesting that love of God and of neighbor represent a common theological ground. While Benedict appreciated the gesture (in mid-November, he proposed a meeting with the signatories to be organized by Jordan’s Prince Ghazi), he and his top lieutenants have signaled that they’re less interested in theological exchange than in working with Muslims on practical diplomatic, social and cultural matters -- beginning with religious freedom, and especially the status of Christians in majority Muslim states.

2) A double play for Catholic identity: In July, Benedict XVI authorized wider celebration of the old Latin Mass, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith asserted that Catholicism remains the lone “true church.” Both were victories for efforts to buttress traditional Catholic identity. On the ground, however, Benedict’s Latin Mass motu proprio has not yet been the revolution some anticipated. A November New York Times survey found that while some younger Catholics appear drawn to the old rite, new interest has surfaced in just one or two parishes in each of the 25 largest archdioceses in America.

1) Christ at the core: For Benedict XVI, 2007 was clearly a Christological year. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, in his speeches in Brazil, in the Vatican’s notice on Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, in Spe Salvi, and in countless other venues, Benedict hammered home his core message to the modern world: A just society cannot be built without reference to God, and only in Christ is the full reality of God made clear. Preaching Christ is thus not a distraction from building a better world; it is building a better world. Perhaps that’s why Benedict was often invisible to global newspapers; a pope talking about Christ may seem the ultimate in “dog bites man” stories, but it was nonetheless Benedict’s clear idée fixe.

John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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